Upbraid took home the Student Runner Up Speculative Design Award in the 2020 Core77 Design Awards competition.
If you're a woman in a workplace with a number of men and feel that your voice isn't always heard, there's research to support that hunch. According to a study from George Washington University, research showed that men interrupted 33 percent more often when speaking with women than when they spoke with other men. Behavioral patterns embedded in culture can be tough to change, but is it possible they can be overcome using design?
This was a dilemma designer and School of Visual Arts student Stephanie Gamble wanted to solve. Her speculative solution to the problem is Upbraid, an app that highlights practices of gender-coded, verbal silencing in the workplace. "Upbraid is one project in a larger suite of projects designed as part of a thesis exploration into gender, voice and power," Gamble writes. "The aim with this work was to provoke conversations around the 'mundane' or daily ways that women verbally experience misogyny and sexism."
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Example of onboarding screens
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The Idea Behind Upbraid
Upbraid is an app that creates space for women's voices in the workplace by adjusting the verbally dominating behavior of male colleagues during meetings. Upbraid is intended as a tool that businesses implement at the corporate level and integrate into employee onboarding processes and performance reviews. Individuals set up a profile with a voice recognition sample and avatar that are linked to their corporate employee ID, email and phone number. Upbraid is used on the employee's smartphone since it is a ubiquitous and easy tool in most corporate workplaces. Once a session is created, each team member in attendance is prompted to "join" the digital meeting space. This step visually places the avatars of each team member into one screen environment.
How Upbraid Works
Using voice recognition, the app tracks the talk time of different employees and visualizes the state of a conversation in real time by scaling up or shrinking the size of the avatars based on their talk time. If a male team member begins to dominate the talk time, his avatar will grow in size and become mean and villainous, visibly squashing the avatars of the others into the corners of the screen. If the behavior persists, Upbraid highlights the offender on the screen in red and sends warning "nudges" via text message reminding him to let others speak.
At the end of each session, Upbraid sends the team and managers a recap including each member's talk time, number of interruptions and decibel level. Upbraid also sends each member a letter grade for their participation in the session; offering critical feedback and suggestions for improvement going forward. If a male team member does not improve over time and chooses to ignore Upbraid's corrective suggestions, the platform adds consequences and begins withdrawing money from his paycheck. The funds are then redistributed to the female teammates he silenced.
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Why Designing to Challenge Verbal Silencing Matters
Gamble interviewed a variety of subject matter experts during her design research phase to gain insight into the state of gender, voice and power today. During these interviews women often mentioned the workplace as a space where gender power dynamics were most present and fraught in their lives, especially in male dominated fields. Meetings, work sessions and boardrooms continue to be challenging spaces for women to make their voice heard. When women want to be heard in the workplace they are told to "speak up," "be assertive," and "speak louder." These prompts are problematic because they perpetuate the qualities and values of traditionally masculine coded behaviors and characteristics. Rather than exploring how office culture can change to be inclusive of differences in how all genders communicate and participate in the office work space, these prompts problematically ask women to change how they might normally use voice in these spaces, placing the burden on change on them as opposed to the offending group.
The social and cultural barriers women face in being heard are perhaps the most challenging. C-suites and boardrooms are traditionally and historically considered male-coded spaces of dominance. Several women Gamble interviewed called out "male entitlement" as a significant challenge in these spaces. One interviewee stated that she was always "fighting against male entitlement" and that men were accustomed to feeling and acting like they were the smartest ones in the room and disregarding the voices of others.
A number of interviewees mentioned that "male cluelessness" to the challenges women experience was another significant challenge and felt that men simply did not recognize when they were engaging in these silencing practices.
Gamble saw an opportunity to design a service that would make visible the verbal challenges that women in the workplace experience to callout men and demand that they address the ways that they knowingly or unknowingly silence women's voices. The service is designed in a way that is intentionally harsh as a means of provocation.
The use of a financial consequence is employed as a means of adding heat and gravity to the situation. With Upbraid, the responsibility of corrective action and the consequences for failing to change are placed on men; a direct reversal of the current dynamics in office environments where women suffer the consequences of not acting more like their male colleagues. It is aimed to promote discussion about what the consequence should be, if any? What is the motivation for changing existing gender power dynamics? How do we engage men in this conversation in a way that does not try to protect their interests over women's interests? How valuable is a woman's voice?
The importance of a product like Upbraid lies, for one, in the data it provides: unchecked misogynistic behaviors are codified and quantified for both parties to see. The financial aspect is one factor that allows for lasting change. "In this service, I am suggesting a reframing of values where women's voice and contributions would be prioritized and given value over the future earning potential and upward mobility of their male colleagues," Gamble says. "Because the work of being heard shouldn't fall solely on women."